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State's progress on CWD mixed

June 2, 2002 The Houston Chronicle by Shannon Tompkins
While Wisconsin writhes under the crush of issues surrounding the recent discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease in its free-ranging deer herd, Texas continues to try to figure out ways to check for the disease in its deer and design plans of action should CWD be discovered.

So far, Texas' progress in the effort has been mixed.

The state has banned importation of deer and elk from outside Texas as a method of trying to prevent introduction of CWD-infected animals - moving deer and elk from infected private herds appears to be the most likely way the always-fatal infectious brain disease has entered new areas.

And state officials appear to be taking seriously the enforcement of that import prohibition and regulations controlling movement of deer.

This past Friday, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens stopped a truck and trailer on Interstate 10 near Junction and found the trailer holding 11 white-tailed deer. The vehicle's driver, a 30-year-old from Alabama, could produce none of the required documentation for the animals. TPWD officials said the man would not answer their questions about where the deer originated or where they were destined. The driver was cited with not possessing a driver's license, 11 charges of shipping white-tailed deer without a permit and 11 charges of possessing live game animals. The man pleaded no contest before a judge, paid the $ 11,150 in fines and was released.

Sources close to the investigation said the truck and trailer used by the man were registered in Texas, but not to the driver. The investigation of the incident is continuing.

The deer - nine bucks and two does worth a minimum of $ 15,000 on the live-deer market - didn't get off so easily. Because their origin could not be determined, state law mandated they be destroyed. The 11 deer were taken to Texas A&M University's veterinary college, where they were euthanized, then incinerated.

Officials admit such measures appear extreme but note that protocol for preventing CWD's spread dictates such actions.

CWD is a form of a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), a disease that causes destruction of brain tissue. Other TSEs include "scrapie" which infects only sheep; bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease," which infects cattle; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) found in humans; and variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, also found in humans.

While the methods of transmission of TSEs are not well understood and there is no live-animal test for CWD (tests must use brain or brain stem tissue), the effects of the diseases are the same whether the victim is sheep, deer, cow or human. The brain slowly erodes, with holes developing that give the organ a "spongy" appearance - thus "spongiform."

That deterioration of the brain causes loss of motor function, organs begin shutting down and death is inevitable. There is no treatment for the disease.

While CWD has not proved transmissible to humans, there is no firm evidence it could not "jump" between the species as appears happened with BSE.

Variant CJD, which is a newly discovered form of TSE that has killed more than 100 people in Europe along with at least two in the United States (two young adults in Michigan), is generally seen by public health officials as stemming from people eating BSE-infected meat. That tie is one of the reasons more than 5 million head of livestock were killed and incinerated in Britain and other European countries this past decade.

Some public heath officials are concerned that if enough humans were exposed to CWD-infected venison, some of them would contract the disease.

The issue of venison safety is one of many CWD-related issues raging in Wisconsin this summer. CWD was discovered this spring in Wisconsin's free-ranging deer through a state monitoring program that sampled hunter-taken deer this past season.

The Wisconsin CWD cases were more than 900 miles from the nearest confirmed CWD infection. It was the first time the disease had been seen east of the Mississippi. And it was the first time the disease had been documented in a deer herd as huge and dense as that in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin holds more than a million deer pursued annually by about 700,000 hunters. Follow-up studies of deer in the area where the CWD-infected deer were taken showed other infected animals.

In attempts to stem the disease, Wisconsin officials are trying to kill all of the estimated 15,000 wild deer in a 287-square-mile area where the infected animals lived.

That massive "depopulation" has triggered strident opposition from some residents not convinced the effort is necessary. And it has sparked concern about where and how to dispose of the carcasses; landfills have refused to accept the carcasses.

In response to concerns about the safety of venison, food banks in Wisconsin have stopped taking donations of the meat. Many Wisconsin hunters have thrown away their venison as concern about it safety spread, despite no evidence CWD can infect humans.

A recent survey of Wisconsin hunters showed 36 percent said they probably would not hunt deer this autumn because of CWD concerns. That would cause a multimillion-dollar loss of revenue to the state's wildlife agency through lost license sales and have an equally devastating effect on hunting-related businesses such as motels, retail stores, etc.

Texas has the nation's largest free-ranging deer herd and almost certainly its largest captive deer herd - the free-ranging herd is estimated to be about 4 million animals, and about 21,000 whitetails are in fenced enclosures under control of the 450 or so people holding Texas' Scientific Breeder permits.

More than 2,000 deer and untold numbers of elk have been imported into Texas over the past four years.

TPWD keeps records of legally imported deer. Elk, which are considered livestock under Texas law, are the purview of the Texas Animal Health Commission, which admits it has no idea how many have been imported into Texas over the past decade.

Texas has yet to devise and implement a CWD monitoring program for deer and elk, the two species shown most susceptible to the invariably fatal brain disease.

Earlier this year, TPWD proposed a mandatory CWD testing program for deer held under the agency's Scientific Breeder permits as part of new regulations defining "healthy condition" of animals. The program would have prohibited any movement of deer from permitted pens, shipment of deer to other sites or otherwise moving deer from their pens until those deer were certified as as in healthy condition.

To get that certification, the regulations would mandate CWD testing of any deer dying in the fenced enclosures, whether the animal showed signs of the disease or not. (A CWD-infected animal can go years without showing signs of the disease.) The permit holder would have to pay for the test.

It also would prevent introduction of "new" deer into penned herds.

The deer farmer would have to follow the rules for a period to be determined (3-5 years was the discussed period) to receive a CWD-free certification of his herd.

The deer ranching/farming community balked at what they saw as severe restrictions on their businesses. The community's members convinced the TPW Commission that they could put together a voluntary CWD-monitoring program as effective as the one being considered for mandatory implementation.

At the April TPW Commission meeting, representatives of deer breeders assured the commission they could get 120-plus scientific breeders signed up for a voluntary monitoring program before the commission's May 28-29 meetings. The commission held off a decision on the mandatory monitoring program in deference to the deer breeders.

At the TPW Commission meetings last week, Karl Kinsel, executive director of the Texas Deer Association, said 19 people had signed up for the voluntary program. Most of the breeders, he said, were not happy with the program rules drafted by TPWD and TAHC staff, and they were wanting clarification and changes in the program before they would agree to follow it.

Again, the TPW Commission deferred action on the mandatory CWD testing program, giving the deer breeders the extra time they wanted. The group promised to address the issue for the third time at its August public meeting.

TPWD is planning to take brain samples of deer taken on public hunts on some state wildlife management areas this autumn and winter. But the sampling program will be admittedly limited by resources and funding.

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